While various forms of automation are no-brainers for certain companies and certain industries, such is not always the case for the apparel industry. Because of a number of different factors, some level of automation may make sense for some apparel manufacturers, but not for all.
As Janet Suleski, research director, supply chain and PLM, Gartner, sees it, apparel manufacturers should at least consider the potential benefits of automation.
"Apparel manufacturers that are making investments in factory automation are ultimately positioning themselves to be better partners with their customers in the retail supply chain," explains Suleski, who specializes in apparel, footwear, retail and consumer packaged goods.
"Automation adds a layer of flexibility that brand companies and retailers are going to be demanding more and more, especially as manufacturers and brand companies become more attuned to demand signals from the marketplace," she explains. According to Suleski, those apparel manufacturers that are automating their operations are the ones that will be able to make the fast changeovers at a quick enough pace to keep up with changes in demand.
"Certainly, the business case for automation is probably stronger for companies with longer runs," she continues. "However, in order to compete, even companies with very short runs would want to at least look very tactically at opportunities for automation, which might allow them to derive some benefits in the short term."
Automation benefits combat uniform maker
One apparel manufacturer with a strong commitment to automation, even though it doesn't even sell through the retail supply chain, is American Apparel, Inc., of Selma, Ala., one of the largest producers of military combat uniforms in the United States.
"The only way we feel that we can compete is through automation," explains Chuck Lambert, vice president of manufacturing. "It is important for us to offer a decent benefit package to our employees. The only way we can justify this is to find ways to reduce labor costs, and the only way to reduce labor costs is to spend money, time and effort on automation."
Automating production of certain products doesn't make sense for the company, mostly because they're so labor-intensive. "Here, we still need skilled sewing machine operators with the understanding that they can make decent livings if they do decent quantities every day to justify their employment and justify our cost associated with the product," adds Lambert.
Some of the automation that American Apparel uses in the manufacture of military coats and trousers includes automatic pocket setters. "We feel that, if a product carries a 90-degree angle on certain parts, we can automate that product by using Durkopp Adler equipment and other equipment that is available," says Lambert.
American Apparel also is using Gerber Technology automatic cutters with vacuum tables, rotation tables and automatic cutting.
"We try to use indexers where possible," Lambert continues. "With an indexer, we can take a piece of Velcro on a roll. Let's say it is two inches wide. We can load and sew either one, two, three or eight inches of Velcro by simply loading it into a device and sewing it to the garment, instead of hand cutting pieces and sewing it with a lockstitch or whatever else they would do in the third-world countries."
American Apparel also has automated other aspects of its business. Since it is a contract company, it treats each product by contract, as required by the government. As such, accounting practices under such circumstances are different than they would be in the traditional commercial world, where fabric might be moved into four or five different products going to four or five different customers.
"We have to account for the certification of trims, etc., get shade approval on fabrics on each lot coming in, track those lots, and maintain integrity so that, if there ever is a problem, we can go back and isolate the problem," says Lambert.
The company needed to develop a dedicated system to handle this particular need. "We have been fortunate in that we have been able to procure some good general managers and engineers, as well as some IT people who had previous backgrounds with VF Corp. and Russell Corp.," says Lambert. "They were able to create a system that is friendly to what we do."
The result is an in-house production control system, called the American Apparel Information Management System, which helps to manage procurement, scheduling, manufacturing, quality, shipping and accounting at all five of the company's locations. "If a soldier has an issue, we will know exactly where the item was made, when it was made, and what operator actually sewed that particular operation," he notes.
What does the future hold? As Lambert explains, there has been a reduction in forces in Iraq, and there will be over the next couple of years in Afghanistan as well. "However, I think that the government is still willing to spend money on new technology for fabrics and how fabrics are put into a garment construction that is comfortable to the soldier — wicking, light-weight, cool, and so on," he points out. "It will depend on what the volume is on these new products as to whether or not we can justify the automation."
When automation doesn't fit the bill
While some apparel manufacturers such as American Apparel are committed to factory-floor automation, others, such as Sarah Lynn Sportswear of Allentown, Penn., see less need for automation.
Over the past 10 years or so, the company has introduced some automation, including electronic metering devices, electronic cutters with electric eyes, and automatic backlatch machines, all of which are designed to improve productivity and efficiency in short runs.
"There was no real challenge in introducing the equipment other than getting the operators used to using them," recalls Richard Koury, president. "People inherently don't like change."
Beyond this, though, the company is not involved in a lot of automation for several reasons.
"First, we are not a large operation, so we don't have a lot of money to invest in automation," explains Koury. "Second, these days, there are no big runs of anything, so to buy a special machine to do a job, more often than not we would use it once or twice, and then that's the end of it."
A third issue is that, due to the shrinkage of the U.S. manufacturing base, there are fewer experienced mechanics to operate the equipment. At the same time, automated equipment is more electronically and technologically challenging than ever before. "We would need to be able to find people who know what they are doing. Even diagnosing [problems] can be tricky, due to the electronics," says Koury. "And even if we could find these people, there would be the issue of affordability."
What's more, while used equipment might be cost-effective, a lot of those machines went overseas, so there isn't much inventory available in the United States. And while he is starting to see some reversal of manufacturing being outsourced overseas, Koury believes most of the customers who are coming back to the United States are relatively small, so spending the money for greater automation still would be prohibitive.
Another company not using much automation is the well-known "other" American Apparel, Los Angeles, which is not affiliated with American Apparel in Alabama.
"With the way we manufacture, using team manufacturing, we use some automation for sleeve hemming and auto-pocket setting," says Marty Bailey, chief manufacturing officer. Beyond this, though, automation has little appeal to the company for a few reasons.
"The other types of automation that are available wouldn't really fit with the way we manufacture because of the amount of work-in-process that would be required to support the automation. We try to minimize work-in-process," explains Bailey. Examples are bottom hemming machines and automatic sleeve setters. "In fact, with the way we manufacture, I believe we could beat these machines," he adds.
Second, Bailey recalls, there was a tremendous amount of effort involved in sew automation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "It was amazing what some of the equipment could do," he notes. "However, once the exodus of offshore manufacturing began, the development of automation almost came to a standstill."
While there's some sewing automation machines out there, according to Bailey, some of it is old, and some of it is very difficult to support in terms of parts and maintenance. "For example, hemmer closers on sleeves would be viable for us," he explains. "However, there is a lack of a good supportive system for them."
Going forward, Bailey believes that automation does have some potential to grow in the United States again, especially as more manufacturers start to return to this country. "I don't rule it out at all," he says.
William Atkinson is a free-lance writer who focuses on business and technology.